I recently overheard a debate between two journalism students at Mizzou about whether or not Oprah Winfrey is a journalist. One of the students described her as such, and the other objected indignantly. “She can’t be a journalist, she has an opinion!” she said. To her, although Oprah is undoubtedly a media personality and content producer, the fact that Oprah engages in advocacy and philanthropy invalidated her as a “journalist.”
Isn’t it weird to belong to a profession whose legitimacy can be questioned like this? Who decides who is and isn’t a journalist?
I should say, I don’t have a dog in this particular fight, as neither an Oprah fan nor critic. But this conversation did shed some interesting light on the often thin line between a journalist and an advocate or pundit, if one should even exist. (Spoiler alert: it should, although it’s never very clear-cut.)
I don’t mean to suggest that media personalities shouldn’t advocate for people or causes, or engage in philanthropy. But let’s talk about the kind of advocacy journalism that probably ought not to exist. This is the kind that has a clear and potentially misleading slant in one direct or another, but when confronted, denies that this is so. This is the kind of advocacy journalism that claims objectivity but has a clear agenda one way or another. This is what you often see, as I have written about previously, on Fox News and similar outlets, where the line between news and comment are blurred, leading to personalities who are obviously pundits— such as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly— fervently and angry asserting the astonishing fact that they’re the only objective, truthful journalists left on television. Of course, on the other side of the aisle, you see the exact same practice. Some outlets that claim, just like Fox does, to be the only sources of unbiased news, such as NPR and the New York Times, that skew to the left, but would rarely if ever admit it. This is clearly on display when these outlets try to write about, for example, the abortion debate— I’ve also written about this previously.
James Poniewozik wrote an interesting article for Salon magazine back in 1998 about the differences between Oprah’s show and “The View,” and the contentious and often frustrating debate about who exactly got to decide who was a journalist and who wasn’t. It seems that sometimes it’s kind of taken for granted that some programs or outlets constitute journalism and some don’t, based on nebulous and changeable criteria. The specific examples Poniewozik gives involve some of the— ahem— world class, hard hitting content created by The View contrasted with some of the more impressive attributes of Oprah’s show.
- “Hosting a daytime talk show filled with softball interviews and gratuitous plugs for your network’s prime-time sitcoms and your own “20/20″ interviews: Journalism
- Hosting a daytime talk show on hot-button social issues and moderating contentious arguments between guests and audience members: Not Really Journalism
- Loosing Debbie Matenopoulos on an unsuspecting world: Journalism*
- Fighting a high-profile libel trial against the cattle industry: Not Really Journalism”
*I have to admit I didn’t know who Debbie Matenopoulos was, but apparently she wasn’t terribly well-liked as a TV host.
On some level, I would argue that all humans are called to be advocates. I think those who have privileged positions of any kind are called to be advocates for those who are powerless, in whatever form those people may appear. Now, of course, this is far more easily said than done; in fact it’s one of the greatest struggles that we face as humans. It gets to the question…how we should all of us be spending our time? To benefit ourselves, or to benefit others? For me, the question that the Oprah discussion really got to on a fundamental level is whether a journalist should use the privileges that come with being a media personality (and it goes without saying that Oprah’s celebrity is greater than most people’s will ever be) to advance the cause is they believe in, and yet still claim the title of journalist. Should only those who claim to practice objectivity be the ones to claim the title of journalist? Or can people with a specific and public point of view also claim that title? Also (and I know that I am raising a lot of hypothetical questions here, but hear me out), how much does the title of journalist actually matter? It is a Constitutionally protected profession, after all.
At the core of the debate was the question of whether a journalist is obliged to be objective. In some ways, I think objectivity is a vain goal for journalists. Everyone does, and should, have moral principles that they adhere to, and pure objectivity— i.e. detachment— can simply never be achieved. We are just too human. That being said, I think most can agree that a journalist ought to treat other people and other viewpoints fairly, and treat their subjects with the same dignity afforded to them as human beings as the journalist themselves possess. But in terms of the question of whether or not journalist should be advocates, I say that as humans, we should all be advocates for something. Just be sure that you practice transparency and don’t claim to offer your audience objectivity when what you’re really selling is a politically-charged opinion; it’s okay to have an opinion as long as you admit that you have one. As the saying goes, opinions are like armpits…everyone’s got them, and they all stink.